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Which Nail Polish Ingredients are Dangerous?

Karyn Maier
Updated May 21, 2024
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Several environmental groups have actively campaigned to increase consumer awareness about potentially harmful nail polish ingredients in recent years. In particular, they have pointed a finger at dibutyl phthalate (DBP), the substance that makes fingernail polish dry to a smooth varnish. While DBP is banned in Europe, it can sometimes still be found among nail polish ingredients in the U.S. Given the number of other chemicals used to make nail polish, however, DBP is just one of a list of dangerous toxins sometimes found in this beauty product.

Industrial solvents are commonly included as nail polish ingredients and may pose a threat to the nervous system due to habitual or prolonged inhalation of their fumes. Toluene, for instance, is one ingredient that promotes a feeling of intoxication when inhaled. It has also been linked to neurological disturbances in humans and impaired fetal development in animal studies. Another solvent, methylene chloride, is classified by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a potential carcinogen. It also increases the risk of hypoxia in people with cardiovascular disease, a condition that depletes tissues of oxygen.

Many other nail polish ingredients are known to be carcinogenic. Formaldehyde, which is used in hail hardeners but usually not in nail polish, has been shown to produce nasal squamous cell cancers in rats and there is a high incidence of brain cancer in humans exposed to this chemical in occupational settings, such as morticians and pathologists. Benzoyl peroxide, better known as an acne medication, is an industrial chemical added to self-curing plastics. It is also a common nail polish ingredient that has been linked to skin cancer in animals.

Glycol ethers also present certain health hazards. They have been shown to reduce sperm count and increase the rate of miscarriages in both animals and humans at very low exposure concentrations. In fact, toxicity from glycol ethers can occur without the telltale symptoms of nausea or dizziness.

Despite the number of potentially toxic chemicals in nail polish, it does not necessarily mean everyone needs to stop polishing their nails. Many big name manufacturers have removed DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene from their nail polish formulations and several new companies have emerged to produce natural nail polishes. Of course, a careful inspection of the list of ingredients is a good idea before purchasing any nail product. In addition, people who get their nails done in a salon — or do them at home — should make sure that there is proper ventilation.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to BeautyAnswered is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon298115 — On Oct 18, 2012

Use zoya nail polish. It doesn't have dangerous ingredients!

By anon140266 — On Jan 07, 2011

Just more misleading info to try and scare people!

99.9% of nail polishes don't use ingredients like methylene chloride or benzoyl peroxide. Similarly, formaldehyde is rarely used except occasionally in nail strengtheners. There is heaps more emotion going on here than good science!

By anon131015 — On Nov 30, 2010

If your child is only three years old, you probably shouldn't be painting her fingernails unless the polish is specifically for children. If you still insist on painting her nails, I recommend you paint them outside and have her refrain from putting her hands near her face until the polish is completely dry.

By anon83977 — On May 13, 2010

I believe "nail polish on babies" is a bad idea! It's not just if baby puts her fingers/toes in it's mouth - What about the fumes the baby is breathing while you are applying or removing it? Are these mothers even considering this when applying/removing their own?

By anon83968 — On May 13, 2010

My friend's daughter paints her six month old baby girl's toenails! Please send feedback ASAP!

By anon49156 — On Oct 18, 2009

why is your three year old using nail polish?

By anon43643 — On Aug 31, 2009

Please forward the name of a nail polish manufacturer that does not use formaldehyde or glycol heaters. I have a bad thumb nail - after the nail has healed I like to by a chemical free polish. thank you, U

By anon32514 — On May 22, 2009

Glycol ethers, just like the article says.

By anon32343 — On May 20, 2009

My 3yo daughter has almost passed out from nail polish fumes. What would cause that?

She only had a little bit on one finger and she smelled it and then got dizzy.

Has anyone else experienced this?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to BeautyAnswered is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's...
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